It’s rare for a film to embody a sense of style and attitude within the very first minute; or in the case of Promising Young Woman, the first directorial feature from Killing Eve producer, Emerald Fennell, before the opening studio logos have even faded. The chorus of the glitzy and glamourous “Boys” by Charli XCX which proclaims, “I was busy thinkin bout boys”, plays within seconds of the Focus Features logo. The track, a playful, flirtatious pop tune about well… boys, is quickly turned sinister as we open on a young woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan), drunkenly slumped over alone in a night club. As a seemingly nice guy approaches her, offers to take her home only to take her back to his place and attempt to take advantage of her. However, Cassie is not actually drunk, she’s completely sober, and stops the “nice guy” before he’s able to continue any further.
This is all part of a plan Cassie has hatched. She routinely goes to clubs and pretends to be blackout drunk in the hopes that a guy will attempt to take her home and assault her without consent, only to stop them before the act and make an example out of them. This is the type of psychological warfare that permeates throughout the fiery and brilliant Promising Young Woman.
Cassie has just turned 30. A med school drop-out who works a dead-end job at a coffee shop and lives with her parents, Cassie is standoffish and isolated, but not without reason. The world has not been kind to her, dealing with the rampant misogyny in her every day life that so many other woman are forced to endure and still reeling from a traumatic experience that she carries with her daily. Cassie sees no need to be kind to others. It’s not until she reunites with Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old classmate with whom she sparks a connection with, that things seem to possibly turn in her favor.
Starring as the titular young woman is Carey Mulligan who gives the performance of her career. A fierce, yet understated performance that carries a lofty amount of pain and torment with just a fleeting glance, Mulligan is just remarkable in every frame. A showy role on paper, Mulligan is able to keep the character grounded by balancing her power with vulnerability. Both Mulligan and writer/director Emerald Fennell expertly walk the line in portraying Cassie’s searing rage without a sense of camp or easy exploitation. Not since Coralie Fargeat’s aptly-titled Revenge, has female rage been explored with such sophistication.
The supporting cast around Mulligan is also expertly assembled. Bo Burnham is highly charismatic as Ryan; seemingly the one male shining star among an ocean of toxic douchebags. Burnham’s role is more multi-dimensional than anticipated, creating some of the films most intriguing moments. Laverne Cox and Alison Brie make notable impressions in their respective roles as does both Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown as Cassie’s parents.
Writer/director Emerald Fennell stuns in her directorial feature debut. While visually stylish, the film’s impressive camera work and framing never causes attention to itself, always feeling natural. Fennell is attempting to wrap her arms around so much in terms of subtext and flat out text, it’s consistently thrilling to witness her actually achieve most of her ambitions.
The film is also saddled with a full-blown pop soundtrack featuring the likes of Juice Newton, Fletcher, and Britney Spears — a dramatic violin cover of Toxic (used heavily in the films marketing) serves as the best cinematic use of the Pop idol’s music since Spring Breakers. There’s even a wonderful sequence featuring Mulligan and Burnham belting out Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind”; it’s about time someone put some goddamn respect on that song’s name.
The film is infused with a no-fucks-given attitude in how it keeps subverting expectations that most filmmakers would fall into the habit of making that attitude a gimmick. Here, the genre subversions are consistently in service of the films thematic core. The tone, which shuffles through psychological thriller tropes, rape-revenge films and even a splash of romantic comedy, miraculously never trips itself up, despite the many avenues it dips its toe into. Fennell also manages to avoid cheap shock value and melodramatic detours with the sort of grace usually found in seasoned filmmakers.
This is the type of film that takes a giant sledgehammer to rape culture and institutionalized misogyny that still runs rampant in American society post-#MeToo and beats it to a bloody pulp. There’s a precision to how Fennell dismantles each section of the misogynistic culture that continues to loom today. Without any didactic preaching, Fennell uses the cinematic medium to light a fire under the figures who further this culture and those who perpetrate the system through their inability to speak up.
This palpable fury is only restrained through the few times the film seemingly pulls its punches. Occasionally, Fennell will approach extreme levels of provocation, only to later pull back, dulling the sharpness of the films razor edge. Thankfully, the films audacious climax largely forgives these instances in an ending that is sure to invoke anger, cheers and gasps in equal measure.
Promising Young Woman is not always an easy sit; it’s haunting, uncomfortable, but necessary and effortlessly entertaining. Emerald Fennell’s uncompromising vision furthers the important conversation that is so drastically needed in our society today and likely for the next century, but never preaches at the expense of its terrifically compelling story. This is a ruthless film that leaves no prisoners and lingers long after the credits roll.